Secrets of Taroko


After a few days in Taichung, my Taiwanese friend Olivia and I traveled to Hualien, a naturally-preserved, remote beach town on Taiwan’s east coast. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and we spent a few days biking, walking along the beach and drinking beers on the rocks, while listening to the waves crashing meters from our feet.

We were also intrigued by Taroko National Park, where we could hike through a gorge, visit some hidden hot springs and photograph the gorgeous views. Olivia and I are both notoriously terrible with directions (we once got lost for hours in lower Manhattan when we first moved to NY–where the streets are mainly structured in a grid) so we hopped on the shuttle bus, sans scooter. (Olivia also has never driven a car, so I, with no experience driving a scooter, would have had to cart her ass around the park.) After 45 minutes on the shuttle, we stepped out of the bus and were taken aback by the luscious greenery, low-hanging clouds, and peaceful ambiance of the park.


Near the Shakadang trail.


Taroko Gorge.


The lines on the rock prove that the water level was much higher in the past. I almost dropped my phone here. Had it happened, I would have been very sad.


Striking colors on the rock.


By lunchtime, we had hiked around the gorge for a couple hours. Olivia had seen hot springs listed online, but it wasn’t printed on the tourist brochure that we were given at the beginning of the day. We set out on a mission to find these semi-secretive springs anyway. After eating lunch at Tianxing, the last station where Olivia offered to correct the “Engrish” translations on the menu in exchange for free bamboo rice, we embarked on our journey by foot.


“Numbness Old Woman Ban Curd” is perhaps the best direct translation that I’ve ever come across.

One of the ladies from the restaurant pointed us in the right direction, after telling us that it would be a really long walk. “Taiwanese people always say that,” we agreed, continuing along the road with the light breeze on our backs. After prodding along for a good fifteen minutes, we approached a taxi driver, chatting with his friend in a parking lot below the road, and Olivia asked him if we were still moving in the right direction.

“You’re walking there?” he asked us incredulously. After giving us some directions, he applauded.

“Hmmm, maybe it is really far away,” we wondered.


Finally, after asking a couple more people along the way, we saw the house, then the trail, then the stairs leading to bathrooms. We excitedly climbed the moss-covered steps to a hanging bridge and gasped.


Upon sight of these natural hot springs, smack in the midst of a river, Olivia and I stared incredulously for a few minutes, feeling like we’d won the jackpot. Apparently, the hot springs were discovered by the Japanese (I’m sure Taiwanese people had found them earlier) during the time of occupation, and due to their love of hot springs and bath culture, they built a path leading up to them. But on this day, only a few people appeared to be indulging, so after somewhat hiding myself behind a thin tree to change into my bikini, we rushed down the steps to join them.


I noticed a pair of gray Converse sneakers, similar to mine, resting next to the guard rail, and I swore that I’d seen them in out hostel in Hualien. Come to find out, two people from our hostel were there, along with a few middle-aged Taiwanese folk, who probably relax in the bubbling water on a regular basis.

hot springs oli

Photo courtesy of Olivia Chen 

My skin appears to be quite translucent in this photo (and in real life.) Some, as in Asians, may call it “beautiful,” while others, like my sister on Facebook, will ask, “Who is that ghostly white girl in the bikini?” Well, it doesn’t matter how white my skin is, because lying in the hot water on a bed of black sand mixed with bits of gold felt better than soaking in every public bathhouse in Korea. Combined. (And you know how much I love the mokyoktang.)

We lazed around in the teal water for two hours, chatted, dipped in the cold, stagnant water from the river, and gazed at the mountains in the distance. Olivia and I really wished we had brought some beer and snacks.

Around four PM, we forced ourselves to dry off and pack up to avoid missing the last bus back to Hualien city.


As a traveler, I am constantly looking for “authentic” experiences, but I’ve learned that it’s best to travel with no expectations at all, so when I encounter a place like these “hidden” hot springs, I can remind yourself why I travel in the first place. And Olivia’s native Mandarin skills may have also had something to do with it…


Have you encountered unexpected surprises on your travels? What’s a place that exceeded your expectations?  


-Text and photography by Sarah Shaw @ All rights reserved.

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  1. Leszek / The Indie Traveller
    March 8, 2013

    Nice photos Sarah! I went to Taroko almost exactly 2 years ago and have been thinking about it a lot recently as I’m considering to go to Taiwan again this year. And the hot springs! Damn it! I didn’t hear about those when I was there. So jealous! :D Pity you didn’t get any sun though, but I see it was warm and magical anyways.
    As for “Numbness Old Woman Ban Curd”… it still doesn’t beat some weird translation of a name of some Chinese dish that involved the words “Jewish nose” amongst others :P
    All the best from London!

    • Sarah Shaw
      March 10, 2013

      Thanks, Leszek. Taroko was definitely one of the highlights of my trip, especially since I was traveling with my friend from college. It was very warm and sunny that day– I was just extremely pale from the past few months of surviving Korea’s winter. ^^

  2. Ashley
    March 20, 2013

    These photos are so great. Love your blog!

  3. Tom @ Waegook Tom
    March 24, 2013

    Love this! I really wish I’d have had time to visit Taroko Gorge when I went to Taiwan, but I just stuck to Taipei as I only had 4 days and it was Lunar New Year.

    No expectations…hm…I actually recently went to Belfast for the sole purpose of seeing a concert, but was amazed at how much the city had to offer in terms of sites, history and scrumptious food – it brought out the pamphagous side of me!

    • Sarah Shaw
      March 25, 2013

      I also stayed in Taipei for several days when I first visited Taiwan–and I certainly wasn’t disappointed since Taipei is a great city–but you should definitely check out the east coast if you ever return!

  4. Casey @ A Cruising Couple
    March 30, 2013

    It’s great when expectations are exceeded! We have been living in Taiwan for about two and a half years now, and Taiwan still manages to go above and beyond our expectations all the time. Of course, there are other times when we get super frustrated too, but that’s just natural I guess :-) Taroko Gorge is definitely one of our favorite places in Taiwan though-glad you got to spend some time there and didn’t just do the drive through.

    • Sarah Shaw
      April 1, 2013

      For sure– I’ve never lived in Taiwan, but I’ve had fantastic experiences both times I’ve traveled there, and Taroko Gorge is certainly one of my favorite places around the island. Thanks for reading!

  5. WS Update - April 2013 - Wandering Souldier
    April 1, 2013

    [...] Secrets of Taroko (via Mapping Words) [...]


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